EU to double military aid to Ukraine as Zelenskyy asks bloc for more help

European leaders meet in Versailles for informal two-day summit on the crisis

Rescuers at the scene of an air strike in Dnipro, March 11, 2022. AFP

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EU leaders are set to send an extra €500 million in military aid to Kyiv — double the assistance already sent — as they discuss new measures against Russia following its invasion of Ukraine.

During an informal two-day summit in Versailles, the leaders described Moscow's attack on Ukraine as a wake-up call for the 27-nation bloc to take a more muscular approach to ensuring its security.

It comes as Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the EU “should do more” for his embattled country, a day after Brussels dashed Kyiv's hopes of quick accession to the bloc.

“The European Union should do more. It must do more for us, for Ukraine,” he said in a video statement on Telegram more than two weeks after Russia invaded his country.

“The decisions of politicians must coincide with the mood of their people,” he added.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Friday he wanted to allow volunteers to enter the fight against Ukrainian forces and approved handing over captured western missile systems to Moscow-backed rebels.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu proposed handing over US-made anti-tank systems, such as Javelins and Stingers, to fighters from the rebel regions of Luhansk and Donetsk.

Mr Putin, at a Russian security council meeting, said he supported such an idea, Reuters reported.

He also said that those who wanted to volunteer to fight alongside Russian-backed forces should be allowed to do so.

Mr Shoigu said there were 16,000 volunteers in the Middle East who were ready to come and join the fight.

Russian forces are bearing down on Kyiv and are regrouping north-west of the Ukrainian capital, satellite pictures showed.

Moscow could now be planning an assault on the city within days, the UK said on Friday.

“Russia is likely seeking to reset and re-posture its forces for renewed offensive activity in the coming days,” Britain's Ministry of Defence said in an intelligence update. “This will probably include operations against the capital Kyiv.”

Russia's main attack force in northern Ukraine has been stalled on a motorway north of Kyiv since the initial days of the invasion, having failed in what western countries believe was an initial plan for a lightning assault on the capital.

But images released by private US satellite company Maxar showed armoured units manoeuvring in and through towns close to Antonov airport at Hostomel, north-west of Kyiv, which has been the site of intense fighting since Russia landed paratroopers there in the first hours of the war.

Ukraine's Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said she hopes a safe corridor will be opened for civilians to leave the besieged southern port city of Mariupol on Friday.

Residents have been cowering under fire, without power or water, in the strategic city for more than a week as attempts to arrange a local ceasefire and safe passage out have repeatedly failed.

“We hope [the corridor] will work today,” Ms Vereshchuk said in a televised statement, in which she said she hoped other humanitarian corridors would also be opened by Russian forces.

A convoy of about 225 people in 50 cars and a bus set out from the city of Enerhodar, heading to nearby Zaporizhzhia in eastern Ukraine, Zaporizhzhia's regional governor said.

“We are waiting in Zaporizhzhia,” Governor Oleksandr Starukh said on Telegram.

Earlier, Russia's defence ministry said it would open humanitarian corridors from Kyiv, Sumy, Kharkiv, Mariupol and Chernihiv.

Mr Zelenskyy said not a single civilian had been able to leave Mariupol on Thursday although Ukrainian authorities had managed to remove almost 40,000 people from five other cities.

He blamed Russian shelling for the failure of the Mariupol evacuation attempt.

Russia blames Ukraine for the collapse of humanitarian corridors and denies targeting civilians.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian ambassador to Japan, Sergiy Korsunsky, said on Friday it was possible Mr Putin would be willing to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine.

“We will fight until the end, we are not going to live in a Russia-managed state,” Mr Korsunsky told Reuters.

“There is no reason to believe that he [Putin] can threaten us, as he thinks, to the state that we will overthrow our government and … embrace Russia after what they have done to us. No way. Therefore he may use nuclear weapons.”

Late last month, Mr Putin ordered his military command to put Russia's deterrent forces, which include nuclear arms, on high alert, citing what he called aggressive statements by Nato leaders and western economic sanctions against Moscow.

Mr Putin has not directly threatened to use nuclear arms.

But while announcing the military operation in Ukraine last month, he said after referring to Russia's powerful nuclear arsenal: “Whoever tries to hinder us … should know that Russia's response will be immediate. And it will lead you to such consequences that you have never encountered in your history.”

Mr Korsunsky said that Ukraine was relying on its allies to help avoid any kind of escalation.

Meanwhile, EU leaders are holding a summit at Versailles Palace outside Paris, which is expected to be dominated by calls for more action to punish Russia, assist Ukraine and cope with an influx of about 2.5 million refugees.

Western countries have moved swiftly to isolate Russia from world trade and the global financial system.

In the latest move, US President Joe Biden will ask the Group of Seven industrialised countries to strip Russia of normal trade rights, known as “most favoured nation status”, sources told Reuters.

That would mean Russian goods could be subject to new tariffs.

Updated: March 11, 2022, 3:31 PM